Icebreakers: Meet The First In A New Generation Of US Coast Guard Ice Pilots
As tensions with Russia heat up, the United States will need to recapitalize its broken fleet of heavy icebreakers but central to that mission is recruiting and training a new generation of ice pilots. This is the story of the first officer to graduate from the US Coast Guard’s Afloat Icebreaker Training Program (AITP).
by Diolanda Caballero (US Coast Guard) “I really love the ocean,” she said. “I also love science. I was caught between two roads when I joined the Coast Guard. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do as much science as I did in college when I commissioned.”
As a teenager, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Lauren Kowalski, assistant operations officer aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10), began looking into the military after her sophomore year of high school; it seemed natural to her as she came from a military family.
Unsurprisingly, Kowalski gravitated to the sea-going services. The Coast Guard’s eleven missions intrigued her and ultimately led to her perusing Officer Candidate School after graduating with her degree in Oceanography from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Upon completing OCS and reporting to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter, Kowalski was able to keep her love for the ocean close but the fire in her love for science burned a little less bright as work on the cutter began.
Despite her belief that she may not be able to do the science she hoped to, Kowalski found her new fire—ice breaking. Kowalski’s sacrifice and dedication to service led her to become the first officer to complete the Coast Guard’s Afloat Icebreaker Training Program and to be the commissioned recipient of the 2021 Hopley Yeaton Superior Cutterman Award.
As an ensign aboard Coast Guard Cutter Dependable (WMEC 626), located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Kowalski learned that although law enforcement was interesting, it wasn’t for her. One day, she learned about Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) and the purpose Healy served. She was ecstatic. The medium ice breaker facilitated scientific research and became the answer to her wanting to combine both her career in the Coast Guard and her love for science.
Kowalski immediately made it known to her command that she was interested in icebreaking. To her surprise, her operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Litts, knew the commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay (WTGB-101) and allowed Kowalski to temporarily embed with the cutter.
Her initial exposure to ice-breaking on the Katmai Bay ignited a flame.
“I was in such awe,” said Kowalski. “Icebreaking is just so incredible! I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.”
Upon her return to Dependable, Kowalski continued to make it clear that she wanted to be on the Healy. Unfortunately, she was unable to take the assignment during her rotation year, but a different opportunity arose.
Kowalski was picked up for the Afloat Icebreaker Training Program, which allowed her to go on several of the Coast Guard’s ice-breaking platforms. She was the second officer to be picked up in the program’s history and to first to complete it. The mission of the AITP is to create more ice pilots as the Coast Guard begins to recapitalize its polar icebreaker fleet.
In 2020-2021, Kowalski was constantly underway. She traveled on board Coast Guard Cutters Mackinaw (WLBB 30), Healy, and Polar Star. Kowalski quickly learned the ropes to breaking ice on each platform. However, it was on Polar Star where she was granted the opportunity to embed with Her Majesty’s Ship Protector, a Royal British Navy icebreaker.
The opportunity arose near the end of Polar Star’s Arctic West Winter 2021 deployment. Polar Star hosted two Royal British Naval officers during the deployment. The captain of the Protector extended an invitation to the Polar Star to take a crewmember with them on their next deployment. Kowalski pushed herself into taking the opportunity and with the help of the Polar Star’s commanding officer, she deployed with Protector within weeks.
Kowalski spent 2 months onboard Protector. She easily integrated with the crew and was rapt with the amount of confidence the crew of Protector had in her. While onboard she stood watch and did just as much icebreaking as she did on the Coast Guard’s platforms.
Within a week of her return from the Protector, she took over as the assistant operations officer onboard Polar Star and hit the ground running.
She was away from home for nearly 300 days, and her sacrifice did not go unnoticed. She was selected as the commissioned Superior Cutterman of the Year. The selection panel for the Hopley Yeaton award comprised 61 active duty and retired permanent cuttermen with a combined 604 years of sea time. Kowalski’s nomination cites her professionalism, dedication to the Polar Star’s crew, and superior efforts during her time in AITP.
“I feel extremely humbled,” said Kowalski. “I felt as if I was too junior [in rank] to receive such an award.”
Professionally and personally, Kowalski’s experience in AITP made her an improved mentor and leader. Today, Kowalski continues to lead with the same poise and compassion noted in her nomination. She remains dedicated to the crew of Polar Star as a victim’s advocate and a Leadership Diversity Advisory Counsel chair and mentor.
In Kowalski’s eyes, she owes her success to a supportive command and a great support system at home. Her philosophy is to be there for her people the same way her commands have always been for her.
In the future, Kowalski aims to complete a master’s degree in Antarctic Studies. She hopes to one day serve in the Coast Guard’s Oceanography billet and continue supporting the Coast Guard’s Antarctic mission.
“I didn’t ask for opportunities,” said Kowalski. “They just presented themselves or were presented to me because of me expressing interest. If there are things you want to do in the Coast Guard, do not be afraid to ask. Find what lights your fire the way ice breaking lights mine.”
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